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You can afford college: How to apply for federal aid

If you want financial aid for college, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Here's what you need to know.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 23, 2014 12:41PM

This post comes from Kimberly Winkowitsch at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyWith higher living costs and fewer unskilled jobs available for Americans, it makes good sense to go to college. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics says enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities increased 37 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Graduation cap © Stockdisc/SuperStockBut affording a quality higher education can seem like a big obstacle. And the financial aid process can be very overwhelming and even intimidating for people who have never been through it. As a result, many parents leave the college planning to overworked school counselors, which leaves students with much less money for college.

It really isn't as difficult as it seems to get money for school, though. There are great options for financial aid out there. With a little help finding and navigating those options, you can afford college or trade school for you or your children.

Free application for student aid

The government makes federal student aid available in the form of grants that don't need to be paid back, student loans that must be paid back after graduation, and work study programs that provide job opportunities to help students earn extra money. Most colleges and universities participate in the Federal Student Aid program.

Your first step in obtaining financial aid is to complete the FAFSA, which stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application can be completed completely online at this website.

Before you can complete this application, though, you will need to get together these things:

  • A personal identification number from this site.
  • Your Social Security number.
  • Tax returns. If these are not yet completed, you can use your W-2 forms to show your income from previous years. Self-employed people can make an estimate.
  • A good idea of the universities that you want to send the information to.

Parents of any income level can fill out the FAFSA, so don't think that you must be low income to qualify for aid. In some cases, such as if you are here working with a green card or have battered spouse status, it is possible to get financial aid without being an U.S. citizen. Check out the qualifications here if you are unsure about your eligibility.

There are a few things you should know about filling out your FAFSA. The colleges take your FAFSA information and grant you financial aid on a first come, first served basis. This means that the sooner you can get your FAFSA completed and turned in to the schools, the better. (This government site explains how schools determine how much aid you need.)

That may mean filling out your application before you have your tax returns. If you do this, the school may flag you and require you to fill out an income verification worksheet. In my opinion, it is well worth filling out an extra short form to have the peace of mind of getting FAFSA completed early.

Also, if you have limited time to work on the application, you can save your form and come back to complete it later. And once you submit it, you can come back and add, for instance, information from your tax returns. Your school may even go in and make changes to your application.

This flexibility makes FAFSA much less intimidating than if it were a one-time process that couldn't be changed. I used to worry that the FAFSA police would come storming in my door if I made an error filling out my form. I found it was much easier to fill out than I had imagined.

When you return to the FAFSA website to complete your forms for the following years of school, the process is much easier, because the system saves your information from the previous years. All that you will have to do is update your information.

With your FAFSA completed, you will have more time to spend on scholarship applications and preparing for college. Take a deep breath and plunge right in. It's easier than you think.

More on Money Talks News:

Jan 23, 2014 3:03PM

yeah right, I can't get fedral aid....I make to i get to pay full price...then I get kicked in the balls because i make to much and don't get to take the tuition as a tax deduction....what a bunch of BS. Last year my take home from my job was only 53% after all taxes, State, Local, Fed, Payroll, Social Security...Yeah right I am one of those filthy rich guys who screwed the "Folks" to get rich....I need to be punished for working my way through school, working two jobs to pay off my debts becaue Jimmy Carter put on a grain embargo. and damm near broke me....When the price of corn and soybeans went down 45%. I ended up selling everything to pay my banker and lein holders.

I am sick and tired of working for those who are sitting on their asses expecting the govt to bail them out.....with school grants, welfare, ADC, Earned income tax credit....URM prefferences.....

Feb 2, 2014 10:12PM
Sure there are many places you can get free money for education, be very careful though if you try and hide the fact you have a little money (it doesn't take much) you will most likely not get the free stuff. Also if they catch you lying, then you may be charged with fraud and that is really bad for you. 
Feb 2, 2014 7:25PM
So, you've heard "get an education: Nobody can take that away from you!"  You're all excited as you fill out those forms for that "easy, affordable" aide!  You'll make much more money and you'll pay it back in no time at all.  Well, do some research before you sign.  You may find you are better off to forget college and spend whatever money you make as quickly as you make it while enjoying your life.  I once pushed education too.  Then, I saw the real world.  Many struggle to pay back student loans.  And, if you work and make money, you'll pay for the healthcare of those who didn't study at all.   On top of that, if you go to a doctor, you may find your memory is gone from the pills you take.  If you gain anything at all, you'll lose it to healthcare, nuresing homes, etc.  Just something to think about.
Feb 2, 2014 9:16PM
Love grants.  You did not earn that.  Scholarships are earned by grades and effort.
Feb 2, 2014 12:45PM
Although I'm not quite as financially set as you, because I earned too much to qualify for any education grants, I racked up 45k in college loans while supporting a family. Now I'm making payments of $325 per month for the next 15 years, which I could be spending in other places. Now think of every other college grad doing the same thing! That is billions of dollars not being spent on the economy. Wait, how many of those college grads have defaulted on student loans because they are unemployed or unable to earn enough to make payments - I know a few in this category. Personally, I believe the government should pay for 2 things - education and medical. If the government did, we would have the healthiest and best educated population in the world any most likely a stronger economy. Here is how I would pay for it: 1) Change the tax code to give businesses tax incentives for paying higher wages; 2) Increase payroll tax by 1%; and 3) Eliminate tax rebates/refunds, of any kind, for anyone not working and paying taxes.
Feb 2, 2014 4:50PM

Why should Anyone get federal aid?  Why are my tax dollars being used to inflate the cost of an education for the entire population.......... except the parasites getting college welfare? That's what it is, you know. WELFARE!

Simply put, if you aren't smart enough to get a scholarship, you don't belong there! And NO ONE should be getting welfare to go to college. period.

Now go ahead and blast me for pointing out that you are the same welfare parasites that you like talk badly about

I  received grants for my import business from Mexico. scholarships' need paid back and I did not want to be hindered by such. My business management class has worked ell for me. I need only get in touch with my friends in D.C.  to further my education. I would like to thank the  American taxpayer for my education and keep snorting that dope as it has turned out to be the right business to be in. Stay thirsty my friends
Feb 2, 2014 9:22PM
I think both the States,and the Federal Government should pay for all schooling .We waste enough money.
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